Guns, God, and Broccoli: How One Vegetable Became a Political Football

More

Despite its health benefits -- or perhaps because of them -- broccoli has become one of Washington's favorite political metaphors.

Food Politics
rhwalker22/Flickr

I have a soft spot in my nutritionist's heart for broccoli. It's a lovely vegetable when fresh and lightly cooked, and is loaded with vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, fiber, and all those other good things that nutritionists like me encourage everyone to eat and enjoy.

I expressed some of this fondness for broccoli in a 1997 Commentary in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences with this prescient title: "Broccoli sprouts as inducers of carcinogen-detoxifying enzyme systems: Clinical, dietary, and policy implications."

In it, I quoted President (#41) Bush's now famous statement:

I do not like broccoli...And I haven't liked it since I was a little kid and my mother made me eat it. And I'm President of the United States, and I'm not going to eat any more broccoli!'

Even in the 1990s, broccoli had policy implications.

And now the New York Times has come up with a lengthy front-page investigative report on how broccoli came to be used by conservatives as a metaphor for the role of government in health care reform.

The story begins with a question asked by Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. If the government can require people to buy health insurance, maybe it could force people to buy broccoli: "Everybody has to buy food sooner or later," he said. "Therefore, you can make people buy broccoli."

It turns out that broccoli did not spring from the mind of Justice Scalia. The vegetable trail leads backward through conservative media and pundits. Before reaching the Supreme Court, vegetables were cited by a federal judge in Florida with a libertarian streak; in an Internet video financed by libertarian and ultraconservative backers; at a Congressional hearing by a Republican senator; and an op-ed column by David B. Rivkin Jr., a libertarian lawyer whose family emigrated from the former Soviet Union when he was 10.

The Times report is well worth reading, not least as a case study in how conservatives frame issues. My favorite part is the sidebar on "the broccoli trail." Here's the example from April 2012:

Rush Limbaugh, on his radio program:

"You're telling me that you want the Supreme Court to decide that the government can tell you that you have to buy health insurance and broccoli?"

In late March, New York Times columnist (and Nobel-prize winning economist) Paul Krugman wrote of "Broccoli and Bad Faith."

Let's start with the already famous exchange in which Justice Antonin Scalia compared the purchase of health insurance to the purchase of broccoli, with the implication that if the government can compel you to do the former, it can also compel you to do the latter. That comparison horrified health care experts all across America because health insurance is nothing like broccoli.

Why? When people choose not to buy broccoli, they don't make broccoli unavailable to those who want it. But when people don't buy health insurance until they get sick -- which is what happens in the absence of a mandate -- the resulting worsening of the risk pool makes insurance more expensive, and often unaffordable, for those who remain. As a result, unregulated health insurance basically doesn't work, and never has.

Maybe the best we can do with all this is to eat our broccoli and hope that it keeps us out of the health care system.

TEMPLATEFoodPolitics02.jpg

This post originally appeared on Food Politics, an Atlantic partner site.



Jump to comments
Presented by

Marion Nestle is a professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University. She is the author of Food Politics, Safe Food, What to Eat, and Pet Food Politics. More

Nestle also holds appointments as Professor of Sociology at NYU and Visiting Professor of Nutritional Sciences at Cornell. She is the author of three prize-winning books: Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health (revised edition, 2007), Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety (2003), and What to Eat (2006). Her most recent book is Feed Your Pet Right: The Authoritative Guide to Feeding Your Dog and Cat. She writes the Food Matters column for The San Francisco Chronicle and blogs almost daily at Food Politics.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

What Is the Greatest Story Ever Told?

A panel of storytellers share their favorite tales, from the Bible to Charlotte's Web.


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

The Death of Film

You'll never hear the whirring sound of a projector again.

Video

How to Hunt With Poison Darts

A Borneo hunter explains one of his tribe's oldest customs: the art of the blowpipe

Video

A Delightful, Pixar-Inspired Cartoon

An action figure and his reluctant sidekick trek across a kitchen in search of treasure.

Video

I Am an Undocumented Immigrant

"I look like a typical young American."

Video

Why Did I Study Physics?

Using hand-drawn cartoons to explain an academic passion

Writers

Up
Down

More in Health

From This Author

Just In